KutluI Ataman’s 1995 debut feature revisited 19 years on

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- Although many fantastic films were made in Turkey, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the country never really had a horror film tradition until recent years. In 1953, director Mehmet Muhtar made “Drakula Istanbul’da” (Dracula in Istanbul), a film in which for the first time a correlation was drawn between Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. In 1955, Lutfi Akad made “Görunmeyen Adam Istanbul’da” (The Invisible Man in Istanbul), which as far as I know is a lost film. In 1970, Yavuz YalInkIlIç directed the obscure “Öluler KonuImazki” (The Dead Don’t Talk), while in 1974 Metin Erksan released “Ieytan,” a remake of “The Exorcist.”

In 1995, KutluI Ataman, a contemporary video installation artist and filmmaker best known for “Iki Genç KIz” (Two Girls) and “Lola + Bilidikid,” released his first feature, “KaranlIk Sular” (The Serpent’s Tale), which is an experimentalart-househorror film reminiscent of French director Jean Rollin and two directors who he cites as inspirations: Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose cryptic debut feature “L’immortelle” was also shot in Istanbul.

“The Serpent’s Tale,” made after Ataman finished film studies in the US, is a mystery that follows dream logic in a decaying palimpsest of all the civilizations that have existed in these lands: the Turkish Republic, the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and more — one layer of civilization upon another — each of which can be discerned in the film, sometimes simultaneously, describing a mysterious family tale shot amongst the ruins of decaying mansions along the Bosporus waterfront, Byzantine crypts, ancient opera singers, vampires, cisterns and graveyards — none of the modern, overbuilt monotony of the past dozen years or so. There is an ancient manuscript in an unknown language, a woman whose dead son seems to be alive and an American company that plans to retain yet engulf ancient ruins in new construction (merely a ruse to obtain the indecipherable manuscript). This is not a film to understand but to immerse yourself in, while ancient mysteries and the forces of tradition clash with modernity. This is definitely a film where imagery and symbolism override a sense of coherent narrative development.

Lead actress Gönen Bozbey as Lamia, whose fiancé wants to burn down her beautiful villa for the insurance money so he can invest in a construction project, is perfect. Moreover, the cinematography by Chris Squires, who worked as a steadycam operator on “Forrest Gump” and “The Usual Suspects,” gives the various Istanbul locales an enigmatic atmosphere that is both menacing and alluring.

Personally, it was very nice to see scenes shot in places where I have spent a great deal of time, such as various ancient ruins and the lobby of the Atlas Cinema in BeyoIlu, and to see an old friend, Giovanni Scognamillo (Turkey’s preeminent film historian), in a small role.

The film was shown twice, on April 5 and April 9, at the Istanbul International Film Festival’s “What A Pair” section. For those who missed the festival screenings, “KaranlIk Sular” is available with English subtitles on D in Turkey and in Greece (Onar Films).

(CihanToday’s Zaman)